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Missing children 'at risk of abuse'
Thousands of children repeatedly went missing from care homes last year, leaving them at risk of sexual abuse, a leading charity has said.
The NSPCC revealed that 7,885 teenagers and children vanished from care in England and Wales last year, with at least 2,959 going missing more than once, some 35 times.
Around 40% of the youngsters were aged 13 to 17, but some were as young as six.
Tom Rahilly from the charity said: "The state needs to be a parent for these children. If any other child went missing their parents would move heaven and earth to find them and to understand why they did it. It should be no different for young people in care.
"Repeatedly going missing should be a big warning sign as this kind of behaviour can put them at serious risk of harm such as grooming or sexual exploitation. But we have to understand why they are doing it.
"Children go missing for many reasons - they're being bullied, they've been put in a home miles from their family and they miss them and their friends, or they just don't trust staff enough to tell them where they are.
"Many will have been abused before being placed in care and they need a lot of attention and protection. Going missing for just an hour or two can be long enough for them to come to harm."
The charity is calling for repeatedly going missing from care to be fully acknowledged as a sign that a child is at greater risk of harm. It also wants care staff to make sure that they listen to children about why they have gone missing rather than simply punishing them, and to work with police to stop children going missing and to return them to safety as quickly as possible.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "We welcome the NSPCC's findings. It is simply unacceptable that some residential care homes do not respond immediately when young people go missing. That is why we are taking immediate action to reform the system, so all homes are safe and secure places where vulnerable children can get the support they need.
"We have already changed the rules so that Ofsted can share the names and addresses of care homes with the police to better protect children who go missing. For the first time, we will also begin collecting national data on all children who run away, not just those missing for 24 hours. Decisions about whether to place children at a significant distance from their local community will be taken at a much more senior level as a result of a new duty on local authorities."